A Subway Collaboration

12:13 AM 2-17-10
42nd St Port Authority Subway Station Uptown & Queens Platform

The coolest thing just happened.

I descended the stairs to the platform for the E-train and I saw a subway bard with an acoustic guitar sitting on the bench near the map.

Now for years I’ve been wanting to relive a magical late night moment that occurred in this exact spot. On that particular evening, a very different middle aged subway bard led an entire platform in a 3AM soul sing-along, including “My Girl,” “Bring It on Home to Me,” and other ’60s classics. He was amazingly charismatic, and I wouldn’t hesitate to call him the greatest solo subway performer I’ve ever seen. I would often try to find him in order to recapture that moment of spontaneous simultaneous vocal jubilation, but it was never meant to be.

Subsequent performances on this very “stage” would include the fragile old lady with the huge sunglasses who would play mind-numbingly simple but poorly executed “melodies” on her synthesizer and never receive more than occasional pity pocket change for her efforts, as well as some oddball trios featuring djembe, trumpet, and pan flute.

In other words, the stage had seen better days.

That held true until this evening when I saw a white-haired woman whisper something to tonight’s troubadour. I figured I’d at least give him eight bars to prove himself before donning my headphones and walking away, so he began by playing some classically influenced arpeggios. (I DID say he was a bard.) This quickly became the intro to Stevie Nicks’ “Landslide.” He was thankfully not playing the Taylor Swift arrangement, so he was singing on key. To be perfectly honest, his was a fine version of the song, filled with pathos and emotion.

But then came the unexpected.

At the other end of the bench, a young guy started freestyling on top of the bard’s playing. His rapping took everyone by surprise, and the platform was suddenly…well…rapt with attention toward the bizarre duet. The bard, presumably not a hip hop fan, seemed quite annoyed and tried to play louder. The white-haired woman shook her head in disappointment because this rapping was not what she had requested. Everyone else just stood there staring, waiting to see what would happen. The bard looked like the pacifist type, but he was clearly irritated and reaching his breaking point. Would he just stop playing, yell, or smash his guitar into the rapper’s cranium? It was hard to get much of a read on the rapper, so I had no idea if his goals were collaborative or antagonistic, and what would he do if someone tried to stop him?

It was a tense situation, but in the midst of all this tension, some oddly beautiful music was being made. Never in a million years would I pick “Landslide” as the perfect background for hip hop, but this guy was making it work. Now I wasn’t able to understand much of his lyrics, but they did seem to be positive. (Had he taken this opportunity to rap about violence, misogyny, or the size of his genitalia, it would have been rather tacky but fantastically incongruous when juxtaposed with Fleetwood Mac.) Somehow he appeared to be perfectly in sync with the song, deftly matching the bard’s dynamic and tempo changes with impressive style.

The longer this went on, the less resistant everyone became. While the bard never fully embraced his rapping collaborator, by the end of the song, both the bard and the white-haired woman cracked the faintest of smiles. The beauty of collaborative music had triumphed over pessimism! The rapper calmly got up and walked away, disappearing into the shadows without acknowledgement. I dropped a buck in the bard’s guitar case, the E-train arrived, and another great musical moment in subway history was in the books.

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